Sunday, March 2, 2008

As vicious acts of violence grow we need a two-track approach to dealing with the problem

This is the text of my article in The Evening Herald on 26th February 2008:

The other day, as newspapers were writing headlines about the apparent involvement of teenagers in an incident that has led to the death of at least one man, a caller to Joe Duffy’s Liveline programme described a bullying incident carried out against his son at school.

The incident was so vicious and so without mercy that Duffy described it as evil. On other programmes recently we have heard of families from hell who pursue vendettas simply because a neighbour has asked the parents to stop their children behaving in an anti-social manner.

And it is not uncommon to hear of random acts of violence, sometimes fatal, carried out against people who are doing nothing more than walking home alone at night.

That is the context in which the involvement of teenagers in a fatal incident in Dublin needs to be seen.

Very often, the people perpetrating acts of violence and terror against others appear to have no internal set of values to prevent them engaging in such acts – or at least no set of values that the rest of us understand. Indeed, some perpetrators glory in the violence they mete out. Far from being ashamed of what they do, they continue to torment others in full view of their neighbours.

What is most frightening is that in all too many cases the violence perpetrated by an out of control young person is backed up by the entire family.

There are a good many streets of our cities in which people live in fear of just one violent, anti-social family. Those who stand up to them even in the mildest way pay the price of in verbal and physical abuse for years afterwards. Others are fearful of getting the same treatment and keep quiet. The Gardai seem unable to do anything much about it.

What seems to characterise some of these perpetrators is an absolute sense of their own entitlement. They and, indeed, their parents are entitled to do whatever they wish without any regard, good or bad, for the effect on neighbours. Neighbours who complain about this are, by definition, attacking them and must be punished.

It’s a perversion of how society is supposed to work.

What can be done about this? It seems to me that it the issue needs to be tackled from two angles. One is the law and order angle. The other is working with young children so they will not become perpetrators in their turn.

From the law and order point of view we need to find a way to give Gardai either the powers or the resources to deal with this “low level” thuggery and intimidation. One of the reasons for the success of the zero tolerance policy introduced by Rudi Giulani in New York in the 1990s was that these low level crimes were taken seriously. Another is that New York invests in policing. To the Irish visitor to New York the sheer visibility of police on foot patrol is truly striking compared to the comparative scarcity of Gardai on the beat at home.

Law and order is never the full answer to anything. We also need to be able to work with children from certain families to turn them away from this kind of behaviour and we need to start before they begin primary school.

Programmes working with pre-school children and their families have a proven track record of success in the United States. In Ireland we have only a handful of such projects compared to what is needed.

It’s not enough to lament the dreadful things that happen in our streets and neighbourhoods. We need to take these things seriously and to do something about them. Otherwise the innocent will go on paying the price.

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